Topping the Market at the Chicago Stockyards

Update–April, 2016:  Stockyards and Sale Barns Still Relevant

Stockyards and sale barns have long been a part of our heritage. A recent survey in the southeast indicated that 65% of cattle are sold in sale barns—a place that offers structure and a chance for farmers to get paid “top dollar” for livestock. 

Dec. 2015 Update: “Man, Meat, Miracle–and Mass Industrialization

Chicago’s infamous Union Stock Yard opened to the public in 1865 and, according to this author, that is when  Americans began to change their relationship to meat. From 1893 to 1933 there were never fewer than 13 million head of livestock at the stockyards annually. This author refers to it as “man, meat, and miracle–actually the miracle of mass industrialization.”

(Guest blog from a farmer who has stayed rooted to the land that his family has worked since 1856)
During much of the past century, “topping the market” meant a cattleman was paid the top dollar per hundredweight for his load of cattle in Chicago at the Union Stockyards, the Mecca for people who fed a 4-H calf or a herd of fat cattle. Marketing cattle back then involved fewer dollars but more emotion when trainloads of cattle converged on the stockyards. Farmers had invested months of work and tons of corn before they turned their cattle over to commission men who in turn sold them to one of the giant packing houses like Cudahay or Swift.
Back in the early 1900s, Dad, Grandpa and some of the boys would load cattle in our small country town and prepare for the 270 mile trip to the Windy City. Sometimes they rode in the caboose attached to the cattle cars. The train would stop at every town—they all had stockyards and a shipping association—and finally it would switch to a main line at Marshalltown, a major rail hub that included a roundhouse.
The caboose had a couple of cots and a few chairs plus a pot-bellied stove. Passengers stayed occupied by playing cards, telling stories, and passing around a bottle of Four Roses whiskey. When the train stopped for water, a cattle owner would walk along the cars to check on his herd–and maybe prod a steer that was down and could get trampled.
The Union Stockyards could be intimidating for first-time visitors as I found out some years later when I was old enough to ride in with a load. Men occasionally yelled expletives at livestock and each other. Commission men and packing house buyers normally road horses and carried whips—walking the plank boards in the 640-acre maze of pens and alleys would take too long. Also, herding livestock could be dangerous as cattle sometimes spooked and stampeded. A neighbor said he saw a commission man’s horse rear up and throw the man onto a plank gate, killing him.
Stockyards created a tough work environment, especially when rain or snow increased the smell and reduced traction. Most workers started at first light, and the place remained noisy and exciting, especially on the “big run days” of Mondays and Tuesdays when fat cattle were on the market—maybe 20,000 choice and prime steers being sorted, judged, and sold. That’s when newspapers like the Drovers Journal or the Des Moines Register would report prices and list who “topped the market.”
One old boy from Hubbard told me about the day his cattle topped it. As he said, “That made up for the loads that barely held their money together. But you know what they say—if you lose your billfold in the feedlot manure, just look until you find it. That’s my philosophy.”
No trip to the Union Stockyards was complete without a steak dinner, a cigar, and a few drinks at the Stockyard Inn. Sometimes that included reserving a room at the Inn and a ride the next day on the 10:15 “Challenger” heading west out of Chicago—a much more satisfying trip if your wallet held a fat check from Swift and Co. to pay off a loan at the bank and buy a load or two of whiteface steers from Montana. Cattle feeding gets in your blood whether you’ve got $100 or $100,000 in the pot.
The livestock, the commotion, the people—I’ll never forget seeing the stockyards for the first time. A simple marker is all that remains to show where this dynamic industry once helped make Chicago “the city with broad shoulders.”  
by Rex Gogerty  (top photo courtesy of Carl Kurtz; bottom photo from

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